Some 60 maintenance fitters have been on strike at Birmingham Aluminium Castings since 5th January over an outstanding pay question. Stoppage of production at the firm caused 20,000 employees to be laid off in British Motor Corporation plants at the end of last week. If the strike continues, the effects will spread.
I understand that the possibility of a return to work and an inquiry by Mr. Scamp under the auspices of the Motor Industry Joint Labour Council is being explored and that the Transport and General Workers' Union, to which the majority of the employees on strike belong, is still considering its position.
In view of the urgency of the situation, I have invited officers of the Transport and General Workers' Union and of the National Society of Metal Mechanics, whose members are also involved, to meet me this afternoon.
Could not agreement be sought so that Mr. A. J. Scamp is more active and has a more continuing rôle to play in these disputes? Would not this enable him to watch them and hasten a settlement where that is desirable, instead of his having to watch them festering for month after month, as happened in this case, so making a strike in the end absolutely inevitable? Could not Mr. Scamp have this extra rôle to prevent these things from taking place?
I rather imagine that my hon. Friend misunderstands the position. This is not a company entirely inside the motor car industry. To enable him to conduct an inquiry in a firm such as this, Mr. Scamp would require the authority of the management and the unions. Thus, the answer to my hon. Friend's supplementary question is that of course the position has been watched but that, under the existing terms of reference, we have been unable to move.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that Mr. Scamp, or someone acting on his behalf, had requested access to this firm but was refused it during the last few weeks or months by either the management or the unions? Would he say whether this dispute in any way represents a breach of a collective agreement?
The answer to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is that this is an official strike and that all the procedure has been exhausted. The matter has been to York and the failure to agree has been minuted. To answer his first point, when I meet the unions this afternoon the prime purpose of that meeting will be to ascertain just what are the difficulties—whether they spring from the management or the unions—about allowing Mr. Scamp to intervene.
The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my question. Had Mr. Scamp or someone on his behalf requested access to this firm during the build-up to the strike and, if so, was that access refused either by the management or by one or other union?
I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman means when he uses the phrase "build-up". I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not inferring that I or my Ministry should have interfered in any way before 5th January, when this really arose, and when the York meeting stated that there was a failure to agree.
If I am permitted to do so, I will. Nobody was asked to intervene when the normal procedures were being carried out. Since 5th January there have been almost daily contacts in an effort to get the matter solved.
The right hon. Gentleman is aware that since Mr. Scamp's first intervention in this firm the recommendations he made do not seem, certainly to the layman, to have been carried out. Therefore, has Mr. Scamp sought access to the firm since his first report and prior to 5th January, and, if so, have they been refused?
In view of the fact that many people in the Birmingham area have known that this was one dispute which was boiling up for a very long time before 5th January, is it not time that there were some procedures for Mr. Scamp to enable him to intervene at that sort of stage, even though either the management or union might be unwilling for him to intervene at that stage? In other words, is it not time that we gave Mr. Scamp statutory powers which he does not have at the moment.
Quite apart from whether Mr. Scamp should have gone in earlier on this strike, does not the Minister agree that the Ministry ought to have some kind of "fire brigade" powers to go in on any strike at an early stage to prevent it going on and reaching this sort of situation?
I think we should get this situation quite clear. This dispute has been through the whole procedure as defined by national agreement. It culminated in the meeting in York by a decision that there was a failure to agree. It is only at this point that the Ministry of Labour can intervene. It would be an impossible situation if, despite anything that the management said or the unions said, we could take power to interfere on what are the negotiated procedures.
Since the history and details of this strike are well known to the Ministry, can the Minister say here and now if he is to convey his opinion to the union which he is meeting this afternoon that if a settlement were reached on the terms asked by the employees it would breach the criteria for the period of severe restraint?
What I propose to say to the unions this afternoon is that they come with me either in an inquiry through the Motor Car Council or any other means to find what is in dispute, but, as I made clear to the company busmen and the railwaymen, any settlement arrived at must satisfy the Government's prices and incomes policy.